Le Tissier looking for understanding; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

Why does he stay with Southampton? Why was he glad when Glenn Hoddle replaced Terry Venables? And what was it that John Motson said that helped rescue his form at the end of last season? The enigmatic Saint answered these and other questions when he talked to IAN STAFFORD
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He is the most talented Englishman in football today. A match- winner, a man who has kept Southampton in the Premiership almost single- handedly, and someone who should always have been a permanent fixture in the England team. Alternatively, he is lazy, uninterested, unambitious and lacking whatever it takes at the highest level.

Matt Le Tissier has heard it all before. In fact, the 28-year-old has continued to ply his trade almost bemused by the national debate that has waged over him for the past few years. But he fully understands that the game is all about opinions, and that such opinions can shape a whole career.

"Listen," he said as he sat in his manager's office at Southampton's Marchwood training ground. "I met Ron Atkinson the other night at `An Audience with Bruce Forsyth' at LWT. He told me how, after failing to sign Alan Shearer for Aston Villa, he asked his assistant, Andy Gray, what he thought about me.

"Gray said he shouldn't look at that lazy so-and-so, and even when Ron showed him my scoring record in the Rothman's Football Yearbook, Gray refused to budge and said I didn't work hard enough. So that was that. And that is how if often works in football."

Then again, those who have spoken up for Le Tissier have also caused the odd problem.

"When Alan Ball was manager here I would pick up the paper after every game and read him going on and on about me," Le Tissier continued. "I don't blame him at all, because he felt I was good enough to be in the England squad and he was doing his best to try and get me selected.

"But the one-man team stuff went way over the top, and I got a lot of stick from the lads which placed unwanted pressure on me. Not so much on the pitch, but in the dressing-room. I would spend most of midweek playing myself down as a result, because you live or die by how you conduct yourself in the dressing-room."

The fact that he is affectionately known as "Le God" by half the Southampton faithful can't help matters, then? "I get really embarrassed about it," he said. "Apart from anything else, it places me in awkward position, and more than once I've been contacted by religious people asking me to make a statement making it plain that I should not be seen in such a light. It's all got ridiculous, really."

Le Tissier's critics were given more ammunition last season when, by his own high standards, the Channel Islander was below par. By the time he was dismissed against Liverpool Le Tissier reckoned it could not get any worse.

"I set myself high standards, scoring 25 and 30 goals in the previous two seasons before last, and that was not even as an out-and-out centre- forward. A dip in form was bound to happen because at one point it seemed as if everything I hit from outside the area was finding the top corner.

"Suddenly the shots started to hit the post or miss by a few inches, the club got off to a bad start, and my season quickly turned into a nightmare. I ended up getting sent off at The Dell against Liverpool for two bookable offences. I think that was the lowest point of my career. I ran straight into the dressing-room and stayed there, alone, until the final whistle. I sat there thinking that everything was working against me, we were losing again, I was not playing well, and I couldn't even get the England squad. I felt extremely low, I can tell you."

The fact that he was unable to command a place in the England squad under Terry Venables, let alone the team, left Le Tissier bemused and bewildered, and he now believes that this, too, played a part in his dramatic loss of form. "I started against the Republic of Ireland, in the match that was abandoned, but then, a month later, failed to make the squad. It amazed me how I could go from being good enough to be in the starting line-up, to not even making the best 22 in the country. It left me totally bewildered."

Did he not try and find out what he was required to do to impress Venables? "I felt that if he wanted to explain his reasons to me, he would." And did he? "No. We've not spoken since. But I was also worried that by contacting Venables it might harm my future chances of playing for England. I might have set out to be diplomatic, but would probably have grown angry over the phone.

"Of course, if I knew then what I now know, I would have asked him exactly why he was not playing me. I saw him quoted the other week saying that he was never going to play me because the system he wanted to use could not find a place for me. So now I realise that, no matter how well I played for Southampton, that manager was never going to pick me. That is very difficult to take, because I know that if I'm playing to the best of my ability I'm good enough to be one of the best 20 players in the country or so. Perhaps you can now understand why I didn't shed too many tears when the management changed."

But is it as simple as this? The problem for Le Tissier, regardless of Terry Venables' intentions, is that there are many people in the game yet to be fully convinced.

"I know, I know," he said, rather wearily. "I'm 28 now. I've played 10 seasons in the top division, scored 170 goals in 400 games, and still I'm having to prove to people that I'm a decent player."

As for the accusation that he lacks ambition, Le Tissier denies it vehemently.

"All I've ever wanted to do was to play for England. That ambition hasn't changed. It annoys me a great deal when people accuse me of not having any ambition because I've stayed at Southampton all these years. You can't get more ambitious than to aim to play for England, can you? Sure, you can play for Man Utd, but is that a bigger stage than playing for England? I don't think so. My ambition remains the same as it a when I was a kid, to play for England in the World Cup."

People do go on about the Southampton factor, though, and the fact that it seems that Le Tissier, despite his detractors, could almost pick his club.

"Yes, that's the best one. I'm always accused of taking the easy option by staying at Southampton. I wouldn't say a relegation fight most seasons has been easy. It's a lot easier at the top of the League, with the pressure of trying to win trophies, than it is at the bottom, when you're facing the drop. It's much more of a challenge for me to play against the top teams, than with them."

The Le Tissier nightmare ended, when it most needed to, with eight games remaining of last season. His goals helped Southampton out of a desperate position and to safety in the Premiership. Le Tissier's form this season has remained good.

So what proved to be the turning point? "A number of things, really. I remember looking at our position in the League, and at the remaining eight fixtures and realising that we were in serious trouble. I knew that if ever I needed to be scoring goals it was then.

"I'd felt that I'd let my team-mates and the fans down because until March I'd only scored seven goals, three of which came in the first game of the season, and another two against Cardiff in the cup.

"Then, after we beat Man United and I scored. I was watching `Match of the Day' that night and heard John Motson say, `And that's Le Tissier's first goal in open play this season.' All my goals had been from penalties and free-kicks. I hadn't thought about it, but that comment drove home what a bad season I'd been having. I just decided to rediscover the frame of mind I was in when enjoying good form, and to an extent it worked."

There was more uncertainty at the start of the new season with the news that Graeme Souness had been appointed the new manager of Southampton. Not even Le Tissier could feel confident about his place any more.

"It's a bit like being transferred to a new club when a new manager comes in. I'd never actually played against him, so I didn't really know him at all. There have been times this season when I've played in a side containing maybe four players who have not been signed by the manager, so it's not surprising that in the back of your mind you ask yourself if you, too, might be out of the reckoning. The fact that he keeps selecting me suggest I'm not, though."

The fact that Glenn Hoddle has named Le Tisser on the subs bench for each of his first three England games suggests that, at international level too, Le Tissier is back. It is is surely no coincidence that since his return to the England set-up, Le Tissier's form has blossomed once again.

"It's either a huge coincidence or, more likely, the result of a boost to my confidence. Glenn had a chat with me when the squad first got together before the Moldavia World Cup game. He asked me to keep what was said private, but it was an upbeat message and I went away feeling good. It was great to feel wanted again, and to be told that I was a good player."

He must have fancied his chances of playing for England, though, when he heard of Hoddle's appointment. "Funnily enough, the reason why I was a Tottenham fan as a kid was because I idolised Hoddle. I knew he rated me because he tried to buy me for Chelsea. I also knew that he experienced similar problems to me. Every time he played for England he was expected to produce something spectacular, and he was also accused of not working hard enough. But it was still a massive pick-me-up to get the call again."

So what of the future? Le Tissier is buoyant again, his dream of playing for England in the 1998 World Cup appears realistic, and he remains an integral part of a Southampton side which no longer looks as dependent on his silky skills."

And will he always remain a Southampton player? "Yes, I wouldn't have a problem with that, unless we were relegated. Then I'd look elsewhere because I don't see myself as a First Division player. But I don't see this happening."

As he makes his way over to lunch with the rest of his team-mates the much maligned and misunderstood Le Tissier explains one final point which, he feels, needs to be made.

"You know, the fans down here have been really great to me, but I'm not staying at Southampton so that people can thank me, and tell me how wonderful and kind I am. I'm doing this for me and my family, not for anyone else. Believe me, it's all for selfish reasons."